Thursday, April 30, 2009

Fox anthology movies

20th Century-Fox made some interesting movies in the 1940s and 1950s which are little more than a series of short stories, all tied together by a common thread. I've already mentioned Tales of Manhattan; another one is airing on the Fox Movie Channel at 2:00 PM ET on May 1: A Letter to Three Wives.

In A Letter to Three Wives, the scene is set with the three title wives at a picnic in a typical small American city. The three receive a special delivery letter from a fourth woman, Addie Ross. In this letter, she tells them that she's going to be running off with one of their husbands -- but doesn't tell them which one is about to lose her husband! Naturally, all three women have reason to worry that Addie is going to run off with her man (otherwise, we wouldn't have much of a movie). Most of the rest of the movie is devoted to three episodes, in which it's explained why each woman has been having trouble with her marriage.

In the first (and probably weakest segment), Jeanne Crain plays a woman who fell in love with a wealthier man (Jeffrey Lynn), and worries that she won't be good enough for his high-class friends. The second segment has underrated Ann Sothern as an ambitious writer for a radio program, married to a schoolteacher played by Kirk Douglas, back in the days when he was still only on the cusp of being a big star (A Letter to Three Wives came out a few months before Champion, the film generally credited with making Douglas the star he became). And finally, we have lovely Linda Darnell, married to slightly oafish Paul Douglas, a very good Fox stalwart who doesn't get the recognition he deserves today. They don't love each other all that much any more, but theirs is a marriage of convenience like many others: he still needs her beauty, and she needs his money. As I said before, each segment gives the viewer perfectly good reason that this is the woman who is going to be Addie's victim. Indeed, we don't actually find out Addie's beloved until the very end of the movie (and no, I'm not going to give it away).

In addition to the three couples, there's also Paul Douglas' fellow Fox contract player Thelma Ritter and, as Addie, Celeste Holm. Interestingly, we only see Addie from behind; we never see her face (although we do hear her voice). The direction was handled by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who won the Oscar for it. A Letter to Three Wives is quite good, although when push comes to shove I personally prefer a few segments from some of Fox's other anthologies, notably the Charles Laughton and Edward G. Robinson scenes in the aforementioned Tales of Manhattan, and another movie on the schedule for next week.... Still, don't let that take anything away from A Letter to Three Wives. If you miss tomorrow's showing on FMC, don't worry: it's available on DVD.

TCM Repeats

TCM only has so many movies they can show, so it's not uncommon for them to repeat themes. This seems to happen quite a bit with birthdays; TCM will drag out the same few surviving movies of pioneering black director Oscar Micheaux on his birthday in January.

But, it's also true with regular holidays and observances. I mentioned Eve Arden on her birthday last year, and was somewhat surprised that TCM weren't showing Mildred Pierce in honor of her birthday. Today is again the anniversary of her birth, and TCM are showing Mildred Pierce at 12:30 PM ET. However, one of the reasons they didn't show it last year is that they were saving it to show on Mother's Day, as part of a salute to mothers on film. Wouldn't you know: TCM are showing Mildred Pierce again this Mother's Day; at 11:00 AM ET on May 10.

That having been said, I do enjoy the movie, and don't mind recommending it again.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A less-wholesome family movie

I linked yesterday to my obituary post of Van Johnson, which includes a photo of him in the movie Yours, Mine, and Ours. A very different movie with a blended family aired today on the Fox Movie Channel, Six Pack.

Kenny Rogers stars as a down on his luck stock car driver going from town to town in small-time races in the South. He stops off in one such town and, while eating a cheap lunch, sees his racecar being dismantled for parts out the window. Naturally, he gets in the motorhome he's been using to tow his car, and chases down the culprits -- and what he finds shocks him. The thieves are six orphaned siblings, who have been more or less forced into stealing cars by the corrupt local sheriff, who has threatened to break up the family if they won't do his bidding. Rogers has some sympathy for these urchins, offering to take them to where they think they've got an aunt who might be able to help them. Along the way, however, he finds that their mechanical skills, and other forms of ingenuity, could actually help him as a racecar driver.

Six Pack isn't a terrible movie, but it's certainly nothing truly classic, either. The plot is somewhat trite, and despite having children in the cast, it's not quite as good to show your children as something like Yours, Mine, and Ours. Indeed, one of the kids has a toilet mouth that would make a sailor (albeit not one in a Studio Era movie) blush; although it should be pointed out that Rogers is horrified by this. There's also the compulsory love interest (Erin Gray) and the predictable ending. Kenny Rogers wasn't a particularly talented actor, although this is the sort of role that comes closest to suiting his limited abilities. Watch also for a young Diane Lane as the oldest of the six orphans.

Six Pack has been released to DVD.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Stick to directing

As part of TCM's birthday salute to Lionel Barrymore, they showed several of his appearances in the Dr. Gillespie movie series. One of them, Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant, is interesting for a few reasons. First, it's one of the earliest movie appearances for Van Johnson, who played one of the three men vying to become Dr. Gillespie's assistant. Second, another of the candidates was played by Richard Quine. If the name sounds familiar, it's not for his acting work. He played relatively small parts up until 1950, when he became a director, making such films as Pushover and Paris -- When it Sizzles.

A lot of people have made the move from acting to directing. In many cases, it seems to have more to do with vanity or reasons of control: big stars either think they can do a better job than the people who are directing them, or else want more control over the movies they make. God knows people like Orson Welles were obsessed with how their movies ended up. On the other hand, I wonder how much of Gene Kelly's directing was directing, and how much of it was just choreography -- he certainly had firm opinions about dancing.

There are also those who got into directing almost as a necessity, and then found out that they liked it. Ida Lupino, for example, had to fill in on one of the movies in which she was a star (On Dangerous Ground, if memory serves), and found out that she actually enjoyed the challenge of directing. Robert Montgomery took a similar path, being forced to do some of the directing on They Were Expendable, and enjoying it.

And then there are the people, like Richard Quine, for whom it was probably a wise choice to go into directing. Sydney Pollack does a good job as Dustin Hoffman's agent in Tootsie, but it's really as a director that he shines. And if you get the chance to rent Blues In the Night (available on DVD), watch for the band member who really wants to be a lawyer. That's future director Elia Kazan.

Monday, April 27, 2009

George Sanders, Craig's List killer?

TCM is showing Lucille Ball in a noir this evening; The Dark Corner, at 10:00 PM ET. You might find it surprising to think of Ball doing mystery or noir, but The Dark Corner isn't the only one she did. In fact, when I first saw The Dark Corner on the schedule, I confused it with another of her movies, Lured.

In Lured, Ball plays Sandra Carpenter, a woman working at the British equivalent of a dime-a-dance joint in a lower-class part of London. She's trying to get a job as a chorus girl with producer Robert Fleming (George Sanders), only to have the plans be waylaid by real life: her best friend goes missing after answering an ad in the personals column, and the police have good reason to fear that this is the latest in a series of killings by a man who seeks out his victims by placing personal ads. When Sandra goes to police inspector Harley Temple (Charles Coburn), he is taken by Sandra's beauty and hatches the perfect plan: use her as a decoy to find the personal ad killer.

Well, wouldn't you know it, Ball meets a bunch of people who obviously aren't the killer, and then through a most amazing coincidence, just happens to meet Fleming. She falls in love with him, and finds that there's a lot of intrigue going on at his place -- including all the evidence pointing to Fleming's being the killer.

Lucille Ball is a better actress than she's normally given credit for. She did a lot of zany comedy, and because she became so well known to today's Americans for starring in I Love Lucy after most of her movie career, that performance is how she's remembered today. I suppose the constant TV reruns helped; it wasn't until the advent of TCM that a lot of her pre-I Love Lucy movies got to be re-examined. (I recall seeing later stuff like Yours, Mine, and Ours showing up on TV, but none of the pre-TV movies.) Having said that, she does a creditable job in Lured. George Sanders is excellent as always; playing a person of questionable character is something he did quite a bit in his career and eventually won an Oscar for when he made All About Eve. Coburn is his usual fine supporting self, even if he doesn't really come across as British. He's not as bad as, say, Joseph Cotten in Gaslight, but he's also clearly not a Brit. Lured is also suitably full of twists and turns, including a really fun one involving a brief appearance from Boris Karloff.

Thankfully, Lured is available on DVD.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Another star is born

TCM is airing the 1935 movie Captain Blood at 9:45 AM ET on April 27. The film is best known as the movie that made Errol Flynn a star, but it's quite good in its own right.

Flynn stars as Peter Blood, a doctor in England. There's a group of rebels going around England, and when one of them is wounded and Blood is the only doctor available, he considers it his duty under the Hippocratic Oath to treat the man, even though he is a rebel. For this, Blood is arrested and sent to prison along with several of the rebels. They're supposed to be executed, but get a "reprieve", in the form of forced labor in the Caribbean colony of Jamaica, which was not the vacation resort, or the place for high-quality ganja, that it is today.

Simply having the men be forced laborers wouldn't make for much of a movie, so you know they're eventually going to escape. In order to make an escape, though, Blood has to win the confidence of his captors, which he does by healing the colonial governor's (Lionel Atwill) foot. Meeting the colonial governor is good for the doctor, but even better is meeting the governor's daughter, played by the lovely Olivia de Havilland. Naturally, the doctor and the girl are going to fall in love: despite the overall high quality of the movie, it does hew to some of Hollywood's more predictable plot lines. After escaping, Blood and his men become pirates, leading to a confrontation with French ship captain Basil Rathbone, and the eventual final confrotation including Flynn's swordfighting that made him the new Hollywood swashbuckler.

Flynn is charismatic in his first big role. It's not his first movie; he had previously played a murder victim with a very brief appearance in the Perry Mason movie The Case of the Curious Bride. But because he hadn't done anything important before, even in supporting roles, Warner Brothers took a big risk in casting him; one that paid off. De Havilland is fine as the love interest, and she and Flynn would go on to make eight more movies together. Still, she's not the most important part of the movie, which still would have been good even without a love angle. There's a supporting cast with some well-known names, including Guy Kibbee as one of Flynn's men, and Donald Meek and J. Carrol Naish. Fortunately, Captain Blood is also available on DVD.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

I Married a Monster from Outer Space!

More nice weather means more brief posting. However, TCM are airing the fun 1950s B-scifi movie I Married a Monster From Outer Space at 5:00 PM ET today. The title is actually accurate: a woman (Gloria Talbott) gets married to a man (Tom Tryon) and then finds that her new husband is acting much more strangely than when he was her fiancé. One night, she follows him, and discovers that he's walking to an alien spaceship hidden away in the woods outside of town! Apparently, he, and several other of the town's men, have been taken over by space aliens.

If that's not bad enough, it gets more fun: the aliens are from a dying world that has lost all its women, so the men are looking for a new species whom they can make fertile. The only thing is, they haven't been able to work out a way to impregnate human females yet. So, the men end up sexless (another reason Talbott suspects something is wrong with her husband) and generally unpleasant to be around. But, God knows the men are working on solving the problem, and that if they do, there will be dire consequences for the people of Earth! Worse, Talbott isn't quite sure whom she can trust. After all, the aliens have taken over human bodies and, like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, look indistinguishable from humans on the outside.

This sort of story mandates that human ingenuity wins out in the end, but I won't give away the ending by mentioning exactly how it happens. Suffice it to say that I Married a Monster From Outer Space is one of those movies that's so lousy it's a lot of fun. The acting is uniformly wooden, and the plot ludicrous. But so what? It's still highly entertaining, as long as you're not expecting any masterpiece. I Married a Monster From Outer Space was released on DVD several years ago, but is listed as being out of print.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Lazy birthday post

The weather is so nice here in New York today that I'm only going to write up a brief birthday post. Actually, I wouldn't have minded doing a post on Rage in Heaven, which TCM aired this morning, comparing it to Leave Her to Heaven, only with the gender roles reversed. However, Rage In Heaven hasn't been released to DVD, which is somewhat surprising, since Ingrid Bergman is the female lead, with reasonably well-known Robert Montgomery and George Sanders playing the two male leads.

TCM honored Shirley MacLaine today on her 75th birthday. I've recommended two of the movies that TCM are showing, The Trouble With Harry and The Children's Hour. They're not showing The Apartment (from which the photo at left is taken; MacLaine is in between Jack Lemmon and Edie Adams) today; it's probably MacLaine's best movie and, surprisingly, I've never done a full-length post on it.

Director William Castle would have been 95 today; he's best known for some of the gimmicks he introduced into the presentation of his movies, such as wiring seats to put out an electric shock at key points of The Tingler. It seems as though I've only recommended one of Castle's movies before: Strait-Jacket.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Born Yesterday

I gave a very brief synopsis of Born Yesterday back in January, when I mentioned that its star, Judy Holliday, beat out Bette Davis and Gloria Swaonson for the Best Actress Oscar that year. Born Yesterday is playing tonight at 8:00 PM ET on TCM, and is a hugely underrated movie that's well worth watching.

Holliday plays chorus girl Billie Dawn, who's the kept woman of industrialist Harry Brock (played by previous Oscar winner Broderick Crawford). Brock is in Washington DC to do some lobbying, and he finds that his girlfriend is something of a liability: she has no social graces. So, when Brock is approached in their hotel suite by journalist Paul Verrall (William Holden) for an interview, he gets the idea to hire Paul to teach Billie how to act like an educated lady.

This being the movies, it should be pretty obvious what's really going to happen. Billie is going to learn quite a bit more than just etiquette and high culture; she's going to learn that perhaps her boyfriend isn't all that he's been cracked up to being. Indeed, Harry Brock is trying to game the system in ways that are against the law. (I would argue that this is natural: if you give a government more and more power to muck up people's lives, it's to be expected that people are going to try to influence the government to make certain that it's mucking up somebody else's life. Hollywood, though, takes the more common view that this is just another case of eternally corrupt businessmen trying to pollute our otherwise virtuous government. But politics should be a discussion for another place.) Secondly, you just know that Billie and Paul are going to fall in love. Still, despite these predictable plot elements, the story is quite good. Judy Holliday is outstanding, and was more than worthy of winning an Oscar, despite the fact that a lot of people would argue the award that year should have gone to either the aforementioned Bette Davis or Gloria Swanson. (In fact, all three gave Oscar-worthy performances.)

The two men are quite good too. Broderick Crawford seems almost as though he's reprising his role as Willie Stark from All the King's Men, but Harry is supposed to be loud, obnoxious, and used to getting his own way. Holden is also good as the reporter, although having done Sunset Blvd., you'd think that Holden would get something a bit more substantial than this, as he's really playing a foil to Holliday. Still, Born Yesterday is a wonderful film, and one that's also available on DVD.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Too Bad She's Bad

I mentioned the fun little comedy Too Bad She's Bad when its female lead, Sophia Loren, was TCM's Star of the Month last June. The movie is airing again at 3:15 PM ET today.

Marcello Mastroianni plays a cab driver who picks up Loren and two of her male friends, who ask him to take the three of them to the beach. It quickly transpires that they're out to steal his lovely new taxicab. The police are no help (this is Italy, after all), so Mastroianni decides to pursue matters directly with Loren's father. The only problem with that is that it turns out the father is also a thief, stealing the bags of well-off travelers at the train station. Indeed, the whole family is a gang of petty thieves! What does our poor cab driver do next? The answer should be obvious: as in Remember the Night, the way to deal with a lady crook is to fall in love with her. True, that's got a lot of complications of its own....

Too Bad She's Bad is a pretty good comedy. As a foreign comedy, it does suffer some from having to read the subtitles, especially when the movie is such a rapid-fire comedy. However, the leads are all quite enjoyable to watch -- especially a young Sophia Loren, who is not burdened by any language difficulties -- as is the cinematography of Rome as it was in the same era as Roman Holiday. It's also not a bad introduction to the Italian cinema of that era. Fortunately, it has been released to DVD, although as I've mentioned in conjunction with other foreign movies, the lesser interest makes for higher prices.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Wild River

The Fox Movie Channel is showing the relatively little-seen movie Wild River at 10:30 AM ET on April 22. It was apparently released on DVD in France at some point in the past, but doesn't seem to be available on DVD here in the US, so if you want to watch it, you'll have to catch an airing on FMC.

The story is a relatively simple one: in Tenessee during the New Deal, Chuck Glover, an agent of the Tennessee Valley Authority (played by Montgomery Clift), has the unenviable task of making sure one of the dam projects is finished on time. The reason that this task is unenviable is because the dams flood people off their propery, and although the government has used its power of eminent domain to purchase the land and is paying to help relocate people, there are some who don't want to move. Matriarch Ella Garth (Jo Van Fleet), who lives on an island in the river with her sons and their children, is one of those people, and it's Glover's job to convince the entire Garth family to leave.

It's quite understandable that Ella doesn't want to leave, as it's the only home she's known in her entire long life. Some of the relatives are willing to leave though; notably Ella's granddaughter Carol (Lee Remick), whose husband has died. Along the way, she falls in love with Chuck, which makes matters considerably more complicated. This being 1930s Tennessee, there's also the requisite racial tension, and the townsfolk's understandable mistrust of outsiders.

I've mentioned in the past that Montgomery Clift isn't my favorite actor. He's adequate here, but not the reason to watch this moie. There are two big draws in this movie. One is the cinematography, in lovely color and widescreen, nicely capturing the essence of rural Tennessee in the 1930s. Wild River is a movie that wouldn't work as well in black-and-white, or in the older more rectangular format that had been the norm until the introduction of Cinemascope. Just as good, though, is Jo Van Fleet. She was in her mid-40s when she made Wild River, but was made up to look like she was 80. Van Fleet is fabulous playing the tired old lady attached to her land, no longer having anything else to live for. She completely overshadows Clift, and the tired love story between him and Remick.

Wild River is a movie that deserves broader recognition, and this is your opportunity to see it.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Never on Sunday

TCM had a fascinating little short on this morning: a 1935 political advertisement in which some of the stars of the day were campaigning for voters in Pennsylvania to vote in a referendum to lift restrictions on showing movies on Sundays. It's not the first time Hollywood engaged in politiciking, but a lot of times, they were doing so defensively. Several of the actors in this short talked about how movies had improved so much in the past year -- a clear reference to the more stringent enforcement of the Production Code. And as I mentioned last May, there were actually Congressional hearings on the eve of World War II because some idiot politicians thought Hollywood was making movies that were trying to push the US into the war on the British side.

On the other hand, this 1935 short at least had the virtue of being something that Hollywood had a clear natural interest in; it's not like the celebrities of today who engage in politics and expect people to revere their views, simply because they're celebrities, dammit. And it's was something that touched Hollywood more directly than the shilling for the New Deal that happened in a number of the movies that had the "NRA We Do Our Part" logo at the beginning or the end.

Having said that, however, Hollywood were also able to make excellent social commentary movies, a fact I've discussed several times before.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Harold Lloyd Spotlight

Monday, April 20 is the anniversary of the birth of Harold Lloyd. Since TCM are airing his movies all morning and afternoon, I figured I'd post about it now instead of on his actual birthday, by which time you'll have missed several of the movies.

I mentioned last August that I think Lloyd doesn't get the recognition he deserves, so it's nice to see him get a day on TCM. They've decided to show a bunch of his lesser-known movies, so Safety Last! and The Freshman, which I mentioned back in August, aren't part of this tribute. (Whether that's a good thing or not is left as an exercise to the reader.) However, Lloyd's co-star from The Freshman, Jobyna Ralston, who is scene in the photo at left with Harold Lloyd, makes an appearance in Girl Shy, at 7:15 AM ET Monday.

Saturday, April 18, 2009


I don't recommend newer movies that often, but tonight at 11:20 PM ET, IFC are showing the interesting short Spider. The tag-line is "It's all fun and games until somebody loses an eye." That's true, although how the movie gets there is something to be seen.

This being the latter-day equivalent of a one-reeler, there's not much of a plot of character development. What there is is simple: a man and woman are driving in a car together somewhere in the big city. She's driving, and he's trying to get her to smile. She's more focused on driving, so when she stops at a gas station, he gets an idea: he goes into the station's attached convenience store, and buys some flowers -- and, as a joke, puts in a plastic spider. The joke's on him, though, as that plastic spider doesn't have quite the effect he intended.

I can't say what that effect is, as it would be giving away the ending of the movie. Let's just say that it's not for everybody, as it's got some plot elements that might be disturbing to some people. But if you don't mind that possibility, Spider is quite a bit of fun. As a short, it hasn't made it to DVD, so you'll have to catch the IFC's showings.

Friday, April 17, 2009

What a way to go!

TCM have been marking the birthday of William Holden by showing a bunch of his movies. He would have been 91 today, except that he died back in 1981. It's a pretty sad death, too: Holden, like a lot of actors, was a substantial drinker, and during one bout of drinking, he fell and hit his head on his coffee table. Like Natasha Richardson, he had no idea that he was in any danger, and what should have been a minor injury proved fatal.

I'm not quite sure what I'd consider to be the worst way to die. There are a lot of stars who got cancer, such as Marie Dressler and Humphrey Bogart, and that sort of lingering death has to be horrible. Ronald Reagan and Rita Hayworth are two of the bigger names who had Alzheimer's disease, which is terrible for everybody around the victim, but one has to wonder whether the patient gets to a point where he doesn't realize what's going on around him. In that vein, Lou Gehrig's disease, which killed David Niven, might be even worse.

Having said that, though, Hollywood's writers came up with much more inventive ways for characters to die than the actors who actually played them. The Ex-Mrs. Bradford, for example, is about a killer who uses black widow spiders to murder jockeys. One of the characters in The Girl in Black Stockings walks backwards into a buzzsaw. And to get back to William Holden, in his movie Union Station, airing tomorrow at 10:30 AM ET, one of the characters is trampled to death in a cattle stockyard. Union Station is actually a nifty little thriller, made by Holden and Nancy Olson just after the made Sunset Blvd. together. Olson plays a woman traveling to the big city, who believes that her blind friend was kidnapped, and her bag taken to the city's Union Station; Holden plays the station detective, charged with investigating. Union Station is unfortunately not available on DVD, so you'll have to catch TCM's showing.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Unfortunate names

IMDb's birthday list for today claims that, on this day in 1910, Doris Day was born. Now, if you've seen movies like Alfred Hitchcock's 1950s version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (airing tonight at 10:00 PM ET on TCM), you'll know that Doris Day couldn't possibly have been in her mid-40s when she made the movie. True -- and this obviously means that there's more than one Doris Day out there. In this case, the born-in-1910 Day played bit parts in about a dozen movies in the late 1930s and early 1940s before fading into obscurity. In the case of the more famous Doris Day, she wasn't even born with that name, but with the surname Kappelhoff. It makes one wonder whether the folks at Warner Brothers even remembered the original Doris Day when they signed Kappelhoff to a contract.

There are lots of reasons why actors might have same or similar names. The most obvious of these would be family relations. It's very easy to mix up Alan Hale Sr. (The Adventures of Robin Hood) with his son, Alan Hale Jr. (Gilligan's Island) if you're not paying attention to when the movie being shown was made. The two look amazingly alike, even for a father and son. Siblings can be just as easy to confuse, even though they only share a surname in common.

There are also those names that are by their nature very common. Think of all the Smiths and Joneses out there, for example. Jack Carson is no relation to Johnny Carson of The Tonight Show, although Jack's birth name was in fact John. The James Stewart we remember from the aforementioned The Man Who Knew Too Much and a whole host of other famous movies is often given the screen credit "James M. Stewart", the "M" standing for Maitland. This stems from the fact that there was another James Stewart out there, a "James G. Stewart" who was an Oscar-winning sound recordist. Thanks to these two, you have to feel bad for Stewart Granger, who had to take on such a professional name out of necessity -- he was born James Leblanche Stewart.

Perhaps the most interesting name, however is Vickie Lester, who like the first Doris Day played supporting roles in a dozen or so movies in the late 1930s or early 1940s. However, they all came out after A Star is Born. What was the studio thinking?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tax Day

April 15 is, of course, the day when we Americans are supposed to file out tax returns. So, I decided to think of a few movies having to do with paying (or not paying) taxes.

I recently recommended Too Many Crooks, in which Terry-Thomas thinks the tax authorities are after him, with good reason: he's been dodging taxes for years.

The Mating Game is a Debbie Reynolds/Tony Randall comedy in which Randall plays a taxman investigating why Reynolds' father hasn't been paying taxes on the family farm.

James Stewart wins a large prize package in The Jackpot, but only afterwards finds out that he actually has to pay tax on all the ridiculous prizes.

The grand-daddy of them all might be The Adventures of Robin Hood. Robin Hood and his merry men aren't stealing from the rich to give to the poor; they're taking back an unjust tax which is allegedly going to go to free King Richard the Lionhearted, but in reality is just going to fund the princes' lavish lifestyle.

The closest I can think of to a pro-tax movie from the studio era might be some of the movies extolling the New Deal, such as Heroes For Sale.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Happy Birthday TCM!

Today marks the 15th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies. The first movie they aired was Gone With the Wind, so it's fitting that this is also the movie which will kick off prime time tonight. Those of us who enjoy classic films are thrilled to have TCM. Sure, there are always going to be people complaining that TCM is either showing too many new movies, or too many well-known movies, or even not honoring people correctly. (However, I don't see them honoring Marilyn Chambers by pre-empting their previously scheduled programming.) Still, TCM can't please everybody all the time, and they have to try to balance off various groups of fans by pleasing each of them at least some of the time. I, for example, don't care for a lot of musicals, so when TCM are showing a wreck like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this Thursday evening, I'll just find something else to watch. TCM are doing the best they can, and if it weren't for TCM, there would be much less chance to see such films as Little Fugitive or The Runaway, or even a foreign film like The Cranes Are Flying, which I had waited for years to see. So a big happy birthday wish to TCM, and here's to many more years of classic movies!

Marilyn Chambers dies at 56

Marilyn Chambers, a name I had vaguely recognized as being a porn star, was found dead in her house, at the relatively young age of 56. In reading the obituary, I was surprised to learn a couple of things. First, before becoming a porn star, she did commercials for Ivory Snow detergent. (I'm also mildly surprised to see that Ivory Snow is still made; I don't think I've seen a commercial for it for years.) More interesting, though, is that the photo seen here is from 1973, which is a year after she made her porn breakthrough. Apparently, back in the day, the female stars of adult movies didn't have to have the big assets that they stereotypically have nowadays.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Monday

The day after Easter is more of a holiday in Europe than it is here in the US, so on this foreign holiday, why not take a Roman Holiday? (Probably because I can hear the groaning all the way from Rome....)

Gregory Peck stars as Joe Bradley, an American journalist in Rome whose job it is to cover the visit of young Princess Anne, who's doing the grand European tour to promote her (unstated) country's interests. Princess Ann (Audrey Hepburn) doesn't exactly enjoy the duties of her office, and as a young woman would like to have some more liberty. So, tired of having to greet a bunch of stuffy old people at a nighttime reception, she decides to run off to see Rome. Unfortunately, her handlers had given her a sedative, so she's in no condition to go out on the town, and ends up in a taxi with Bradley.

Bradley takes this woman back to his apartment, but doesn't realize until the next morning that it's Princess Ann. He realizes that he's got the scoop of the year on his hands, if only he can get the pictures to prove it. So, Joe calls up his photographer friend Irving (Eddie Albert), and gets Irving to tag along with the two of them for the day, secretly taking pictures as Joe takes Princess Ann out for a day on the town. Needless to say, while they're gallivanting around, Joe and Ann fall in love, despite the fact that it's a relationship that can't possibly work out.

Roman Holiday is a delightful movie, part romance and part travelogue; almost as good in the travelogue part as the old Traveltalks shorts (although it would have been nice if the Rome of the early 1950s could have been captured in brilliant Technicolor). The three leads all look like they're having the time of their lives making this movie. Also, the dilemma of how to resolve Joe and Ann's relationship is very well handled. Audrey Hepburn won an Oscar for her role, which made her a star. Indeed, she got billing before the title on the insistence of Gregory Peck. He was the male lead, and realized fairly early in the shooting what a remarkable job Hepburn was doing, so he let the producers know that she deserved such a high billing. Roman Holiday is also suitable for the whole family, although boys of a certain age may not care for the romantic part of the plot. (There are good-natured fight scenes to make up for that, however.)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Rabbit redux

Today being Easter, I started to think about some rabbits in the movies. The most obvious example would be Bugs Bunny, although he was by no means the first animated rabbit. Walt Disney's animator Ub Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit when the two were working at Universal in the late 1920s, and the rights to about two dozen of the Oswald cartoons were famously traded by NBC/Universal to Disney/ABC in order to let ABC's sports announcer Al Michaels move to NBC in order to do Sunday Night Football.

I was going to mention real rabbits, but my first movie selection was going to be Harvey -- who isn't an actual rabbit. Or is he?

The old joke about rabbits is that they reproduce like crazy, and this joke is referenced at the end of the nice Robert Montgomery movie Hide-Out. This movie also has a young Mickey Rooney crying when he finds out that one of his rabbits is the family's dinner.

If you prefer warm, cuddly bunnies to rabbits, try Bunny Lake Is Missing. Oops; that's only got a bunny in the title. And there's nothing warm and cuddly about the movie either.

Happy Easter to all our Christian readers.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Administrative test

I'm a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, and have probably recommended a good 15 of his movies.  TCM are showing a bunch of his 1940s movies tonight in prime time, and I think I've recommended all of them before:
Saboteur kicks off the night at 8:00 PM ET;
Shadow of a Doubt follows at 10:00 PM;
Foreign Correspondent is at midnight between Saturday and Sunday (still Saturday evening in more westerly time zones);
Rebecca, Oscar's Best Picture of 1940, is at 2:15 AM Sunday; and
Spellbound airs at 4:30 AM Sunday.
That being said, the real reason for this post is a test of Blogger's post-by-email function, which I haven't used before.  If the formatting of this post looks noticeably different from previous posts, that would explain why.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Dizzy nuns

Come to the Stable was on the Fox Movie Channel this morning, and to be honest, I had never seen it before. Loretta Young and Celeste Holm star as a pair of nuns who, depending on your point of view, could be considered anything from naïve to pushy. They've just come from France to try to build a children's hospital, and seem to have no idea of the way America works. (Surprising, since the impeccable American accent of Loretta Young's character is explained by her having been born in the States.) They simply expect God in His providence to provide for them because, by golly, they've got faith.

It reminded me of Lilies of the Field, and the piece that TCM runs from time to time on Sidney Poitier. In the movie, Poitier plays a man traveling through Arizona who gets waylaid by a bunch of East German refugee nuns trying to build a chaple in the middle of nowhere. Through their guile and faith, they get Poitier and everybody around them to help out with the construction. This, like Come to the Stable is thoroughly unrealistic (not that the unrealism takes away from either movie), and one of the speakers in TCM's piece on Poitier refers to those "dizzy nuns" getting Poitier to build that chapel.

I wanted to do a longer piece of Nuns on the Run. It's an enjoyable enough (even if not great) movie about two career criminals who find that modern crime is getting too violent for them, and find that the only way to escape this life is by escaping -- into a convent! Insert the standard string of cross-dressing jokes, along with the standard Catholic jokes, as one of the criminals is Anglican and doesn't know any of the finer points of Catholicism. It was released on DVD, but is apparently out of print.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Learning new things

I'm not a film historian, or even particularly expert when it comes to classic cinema; I'm just a fan. As a result, there are times when I learn something new about the movies. Last night on TCM was one such time, as I had barely even heard of the name Morris Engel. His 1953 independent movie Little Fugitive kicked off the night, and is well worth at least one viewing.

The plot is fairly simple: an older brother has to look after his kid brother, and doesn't particularly like doing it. Together with his two friends, he springs a joke on his kid brother: play dead, and make his kid brother think he actually shot the older brother. Unfortunately, this didn't have quite the effect that the older brother had in mind. The younger brother thinks he's going to be punished by the police, and so runs away to Coney Island until the heat is off. Naturally, the older brother gets quite worried when he discovers that his younger brother has gone missing....

Little Fugitive is a fascinating film for a whole host of reasons. It's told in a cinéma vérité style. Engel, who was a still photographer by trade, used a 35-millimeter camera that he could strap around his body, making it possible to have a cameraman who was much more unobtrusive, enabling a much different feel than one would get from normal Hollywood movies. Also, the actors used were not professionals, and had a much more naturalistic approach to moviemaking. Even though these are fictional characters, they're much more believable as a real family than Judge Hardy and his brood. Engel's photographic techniques are combined with a use of the real Coney Island, as it existed in the early 1950s, and is a far cry from the obviously stagebound Coney Island of a movie like The Devil and Miss Jones. It's both interesting and a bit bittersweet, in that a lot of the places presented in such movies don't exist any more.

Although Little Fugitive is a worthy movie, it does have a few flaws, mostly in that the pacing seems a bit off. There are a few sequences, especially those involving the little kid's picking up bottles to get the deposit money, that go on longer than they really should. Also, there are one or two plot points that seem unrealistic. But give the movie a chance. It does seem to be available on DVD, but currently only in a box set with Engel's other movies, meaning you'll have to pay a bit higher price.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Life Begins at 80

In last night's Petrified Forest, Bette Davis' grandfather was played by Charley Grapewin. I use the phrase "veteran character actor" quite a bit, and Grapewin is another of the people who fits the bill. Grapewin was one of the many people for whom a new career opened up with the advent of talking pictures. Grapewin was 60 at the time his movie career really began, and he was active into his 80s.

The transition to talkies gave life to other mature actors' careers, too. Some had done work in silents, such as Marie Dressler, but it was really talkies that made her a much bigger name, and she was past 60 when she won her Oscar for Min and Bill. An even older actress, though, was May Robson, who was in her seventies when talkies came around.

Some mature actors didn't come to Hollywood until years later, having spent quite a bit of time on the stage. Charles Coburn and his first wife had a theater troupe, which lasted until her death; it was only after that that Coburn left for Hollywood for a full-time career, starting at the age of 60. Another similar career path was followed by Sydney Greenstreet, who played on stage for over 30 years before, at the age of 62, making a big splash in his first movie, The Maltese Falcon.

Finally, there's Clifton Webb, who had done a few silents back in the 1920s, but spent much of his career on stage until, at the age of 55, made a comeback as spectacular as Greenstreet's debut, earning an Oscar nomination for the movie Laura.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Petrified Forest

Our next movie takes me back to one of my very first posts. TCM are honoring Leslie Howard tonight in prime time, and kick off the evening with his 1936 movie The Petrified Forest, at 8:00 PM ET.

Based on a Broadway play, The Petrified Forest sees Howard get top billing as a romantic, utopian poet making his way across the US, who stops in at a local watering hole somewhere in the Southwest. The place is manned by Bette Davis and her father. She's only working there because she doesn't have any other economic opportunities; in reality, she's just as much the dreamer and artist as Howard, and would like desperately to get away fro mthis God-forsaken place. And when Leslie Howard walks in, this might finally be her chance.

Sadly, fate steps in. Well, not so much fate, but gangster Duke Mantee, played by Humphrey Bogart, who was still way down the billing list. He and his gang are on the run, and figure that this is the perfect place for them to stop and wait for his woman. Duke and his gang proceed to take over the joint and hold everybody hostage. As I mentioned a year ago, Leslie Howard seemed to get cast as a lot of milquetoast characters, and this one is no exception, although the combination of the hostage crisis, and having a girl he now loves, finally affords him a chance to do the right thing, at least in his own way.... (Well, he also did the right thing in A Free Soul and some other movies, but he always came across as weak.)

Although Leslie Howard is the lead, and Bette Davis does an excellent job without being very over the top. However, Humphrey Bogart steals the show the minute he walks into the joint. He wasn't really even a B star yet: he'd made a few movies, and doing stage work, but this was the movie that got his career going and got him bigger roles playing second behind James Cagney or Pat O'Brien in Warners' late-30s gangster movies. Of all the gin joints in all the world, he had to walk into Bette Davis'.

Petrified Forest is available on DVD, should you miss TCM's showing.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Do you know who I am?

TCM is showing Mister Buddwing early on April 7. James Garner stars as a man with amnesia, who can't remember his identity, and goes through a series of women trying to figure out who the hell he is. It's worth watching -- once -- because it's so ludicrously bad.

I can't help but thinking that a lot of the movies in the "Who am I? Why am I here?" genre don't quite live up to their hype. Another one that comes to mind is Random Harvest, in which Ronald Colman plays a World War I veteran who gets amnesia twice. The first time, he can't remember his old life, and falls in love with Greer Garson; the second time, he suddenly remembers his original life, and can't remember who the hell Greer Garson is. Writing someplace else several years ago, I referred to movies like this as the type of movie that screams "chick flick", and won't shut the hell up. I suppose movies like that could be good -- some chick flicks even won Oscars -- but Random Harvest is so turgid that it makes me want to run from the room screaming.

For something more modern, you could try The Bourne Identity, but it's a typical conspiracy theory-styled spy movie, in which the entire Establishment is up against this one poor put-upon guy who can't even remember who he is. Personally, I find such movies to strain credulity to the breaking point.

May-December relationships

TCM showed Goodbye Again today, in which Ingrid Bergman falls for younger Anthony Perkins. In fact, the age difference between them was only 17 years. There have been lots of movies in which the actors playing the characters have much greater age differences.

Cary Grant was known for playing distinguished older gentleman types later in his career; having been born in 1904, this gave him a well over 20-year difference when starring opposite people like Eva Marie Saint in North By Northwest or Audrey Hepburn in Charade.

Gloria Swanson was 65 when she played Norma Desmond in Sunset Blvd.; William Holden was only in his mid 30s.

And for a more interesting one, there was a good 30-year age difference between millionaire Joe E. Brown, and the object of his affection, Jack Lemmon, in Some Like It Hot.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Melvyn Douglas, 1901-1981

Head shot of Jack Carson,

I'm too lazy to write a full-length post on a Sunday morning, so I'll note that today is the birth anniversary of Melvyn Douglas, who won two Best Supporting Actor Oscars later in his career, but never got quite the leading roles he probably deserved. I've recommended at least three of his movies, though:

Captains Courageous, in which Douglas plays father to Freddie Bartholomew. (Interestingly, IMDb lists star Spencer Tracy as being exactly one year older than Douglas.)

Ninotchka, in which Douglas helps Greta Garbo break through her shell.

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, in which Douglas tries to keep Cary Grant and Myrna Loy well-grounded -- although Grant things Douglas is trying to steal his wife!

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Seven Days to Noon

I've mentioned my enjoyment of the "little" British pictures of the post-War era before, and TCM is showing another of them at noon ET on April 5: Seven Days to Noon.

The plot sounds familiar, except that this is one of the first movies to use it. A British research facility is doing scientific work on nuclear weapons. One evening, the people there find that, to their horror, one of the weapons has gone missing. Not only that, but one of the leading researchers has gone missing too. Needless to say, it doesn't take long before the police get the news they must be dreading: a ransom note from the professor. If the UK doesn't stop doing nuclear research, the professor is going to detonate the bomb somewhere in London. It's the ultimate form of unilateral disarmament.

The rest of the movie is good, if a bit predictable: the British authorities go into overdrive in their attempt to find the professor. Meanwhile, the professor has some narrow, coincidentally lucky escapes as he just avoids getting caught. Also, there's the standard-issue romance between the professor's daughter and one of his young assistants, neither of whom want to believe that he could really do such a dastardly thing.... Of course, you know when watching a movie like this that the bomb isn't going to go off, but seeing how the authorities ultimately stop it from happening is what makes the movie so interesting -- particularly watching them engage in a mass evacuation of a significant proportion of London.

Barry Jones plays the professor, and he's pretty darn good here, appropriately clever and slightly mad. The rest of the cast complements him nicely, even if they're not very well-known names. Like many of these small British picutres, Seven Days to Noon is not available on DVD, so you'll have to catch TCM's showing.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Jack Webb and the death of Hollywood's Golden Age

Yesterday was the anniversary of Jack Webb's birth, and I can't help but think that careers like his were partly responsible for the death of classic Hollywood as it existed in the 1930s and 1940s. No, it's not his fault, but people such as him who went into TV had a huge effect on Hollywood.

Generally, this is seen as people staying at home to watch TV instead of going to a movie, with the result that Hollywood had to come up with new gimmicks in the 1950s: these could be all-star blockbusters, like The Greatest Show on Earth, or new forms of presentation like Cinemascope or even the short-lived 3-D craze.

One thing that doesn't seem to get as much mention is the nature of the TV series. One of the digital subchannels I get on TV carries the Retro Television Network, which carries programs from the 1950s through the 1980s. Thanks to them, I've been able to see Webb's work in the 1960s incarnation of Dragnet, which I had never seen before. Frankly, I was surprised at the poor quality of the show. The acting was wooden and one-dimensional, the sets were threadbare, and the plots were formulaic. Still, the show had a lot of charm. Then, it struck me: in watching Dragnet, I was watching the 1960s equivalent of Hollywood's B movie series of the 1930s and 40s. Dragnet is fundamentally no different from Torchy Blane or Dr. Kildare (which was of course later turned into a TV series). Back in the day, the B movies were important in that they provided the second bill of an entire night's entertainment. TV wasn't only taking those away; it was taking away a lot of the production staff and assembly-line capacity to turn out such stuff.

So, when you watch crappy TV shows, just think that you're watching the latter-day equivalent of those fun B movies we know and love. (Or maybe not. The movies back then were much cleaner than TV today. But that's a complaint for another day....)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

On Film Preservation

I heard an interesting report on Radio Japan this morning:

What's believed to be Japan's oldest negative movie film has been found.

The National Film Center of the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo says the film depicts a dance performance of renowned kabuki actors of the Meiji era.

It shows Ichikawa Danjuro 9th and Onoe Kikugoro 5th performing a play, Momiji-gari. The actors were active from the mid 19th century to the early 20th century.

The short in question is called Momijigari. According to IMDb, the movie was made in 1897. But a website on Victorian cinema claims that the film was made in November 1899.

Jack Webb, 1920-1982

Jack Webb, the man best known for playing Sgt. Joe Friday on the TV series Dragnet, was born on this day in 1920. Webb was a movie actor before making the movie to play Joe Friday. Indeed, the genesis for Dragnet came from one of Webb's earliest movies, He Walked By Night. It's a police procedural in which Webb has a small role as a police lab technician, but from this movie, the idea was made to bring a series of police procedural dramatizations to radio, which is what became Dragnet. Dragnet, of course, became enormously popular, spawning the 1950s TV series; a revival in the late 1960s with Webb; two more TV versions, in 1989 and the early 2000s; and at least two movies, the first of which was made in 1954 and starred Webb himself.

Webb did do other work, however. Perhaps the most interesting place you can watch him is as the young assistant director friend of writer William Holden in Sunset Blvd.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Favorite dances

TCM kicks off prime time tonight at 8:00 PM ET with Royal Wedding, the movie that has Fred Astaire's famous dance on the ceiling, courtesy of a revolving set. It's certainly one of the best-known dance scenes from Hollywood's golden age, but is it the greatest?

"Greatest", of course, is a matter for debate. MGM, however, picked a different dance to call the best ever when they released That's Entertainment!, saving the Gene Kelly's climactic number from An American in Paris for their finale. (Royal Wedding was also made at MGM, so the producers of That's Entertainment! could have picked it for the finale if they had wished.)

I think that I would have picked a different Gene Kelly dance, myself, namely the extended cadenza near the end of Singin' In the Rain, in which Kelly dances with Cyd Charisse.

Which dance would you pick as the best ever?